Part 17: CES Letter Book of Abraham Questions [Section H]
by Sarah Allen
Since we finished Facsimile 3 last week, you might be thinking that we’re done with the facsimiles, but we’re not. Jeremy Runnells gives a slanted and mocking—but useful—recap of all three facsimiles in his next question/concern. This will give us a chance to review everything we’ve gone over so far. After that, we’ll move on to other facets of the Book of Abraham, and then I want to culminate this section with an overview of the evidence in favor of its historicity, because there is a decent amount of it and I think it’s important to learn its strengths as much as, if not more than, the criticisms against it. The Book of Abraham contains some of our most beautiful, unique doctrines, and throwing it out because you don’t know the research would be tragic.
To begin, Jeremy states the following:
Respected non-LDS Egyptologists state that Joseph Smith’s translation of the papyri and facsimiles are gibberish and have absolutely nothing to do with the papyri and facsimiles and what they actually say.
As I hope I’ve shown over the last few weeks, this is not an accurate assessment of either the papyri or the facsimiles. While it’s true that some Egyptologists make those claims, modern Egyptologists are very often wrong when guessing what ancient Egyptians believed their figures to represent, and moreover, they rarely have any of the proper training in the correct time period and in the Demotic script being used that would be necessary to make those professional assessments. We also don’t know whether we should even be looking at the Egyptological explanations for the facsimiles, or whether they should be Jewish interpretations or something else entirely. Even if we should be looking for Egyptian interpretations, Egyptians were famous for having multiple meanings for their artwork and often encouraged different interpretations.
Beyond all of that, both the 1859 St Louis Museum catalog description and its reprint from 1863 were taken from the work of Gustavus Seyffarth, the only Egyptologist ever to study the long roll of papyrus that was named by eyewitnesses as the source of the Book of Abraham. The catalogs stated definitively that there was another text on the roll after the Book of Breathings. That text was titled “The Beginning of the Book of …”, but then the description cuts off and doesn’t say what that book actually was, and unfortunately, the long roll was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The eyewitnesses clearly separated the roll from the fragments in their descriptions. When they talked about the source of the Book of Abraham, they were talking about the roll, and when they talked about the glazed slides, they were talking about the fragments. Because of all of this, we can’t say that the Book of Abraham translation has nothing to do with the papyri, because the bulk of the papyri doesn’t exist anymore. All we can say definitively is that the translation has nothing to do with the fragments, beyond the fragment of the image from Facsimile 1.
Jeremy continues with notes on each of the facsimiles, so we’ll go through them one at a time:
- The names are wrong.
- The Abraham scene is wrong.
- He names gods that are not part of the Egyptian belief system; of any known mythology or belief system.
Again, these statements are not very accurate. Regarding the names, the prone figure is assumed to be the deceased owner of the papyri, Hor (sometimes identified as Osiris as a stand-in for the deceased). However, these types of scenes are never included with Books of Breathings, so there is nothing stating that the figure is Hor. It is merely assumed to be him because that’s who would typically be on a lion couch in an embalming or resurrection scene. It’s also true that the standing figure is usually depicted as the Egyptian god Anubis in embalming scenes and Osiris in resurrection scenes. As Anubis was the Egyptian god of mummification and the afterlife and Osiris was the Egyptian god of the underworld and of resurrection, their presence in those scenes would make sense. But this scene is not typical and is not depicting either of those things, as the figure is clearly still alive and is not in the process of being resurrected. Labeling the figure as Anubis instead of a priest wearing the mask of Anubis, as was common in certain rituals, is problematic because the figure is not being mummified. He is struggling for his life. And what better way to depict an idolatrous priest performing a ritual sacrifice than by showing that priest wearing the mask of a deity known to be worn during similar rituals? As for the falcon of Horus, Kevin Barney pointed out that in Semitic appropriations of Egytpian art, the falcon was synonymous with angels, which is exactly what Joseph labels it to be.
The only thing on the Abraham scene that’s been demonstrably shown to have been altered is the priest figure. His head should be an Anubis head, as the new high-res images of the papyri fragment show. It is unclear whether the original head was lost before or after Joseph received the papyri, but in either case, regardless of what head he has the figure is a priest. Additionally, the original papyri fragment shows that the priest was engraved incorrectly in another, more important way. Reuben Hedlock put the priest behind the table; however, originally, he was between the table and the prone figure atop it, a feature that is entirely, 100% unique among lion couch scenes. This strongly suggests that the image is depicting a struggle, not an embalming scene or a resurrection scene.
Everything else that that Jeremy Runnells claimed was wrong in the facsimile was actually correct, according to multiple sources. Several witnesses, including ones hostile to Joseph, described the priest holding a knife before that part of the fragment was lost to time, as shown in the previous link. Others pointed out that the fingers were actually the prone figure’s fingers, not wings of a second bird. The prone figure also should not have been ithyphallic, as he was clearly wearing breeches, and there simply wasn’t enough room on the illustration for that to be accurate.
And, while it’s true that the four gods Joseph listed were not Egyptian gods, there is very good evidence suggesting that they were regional deities during the correct time period. The statement that “they are not part of any known mythology or belief system” is simply not true. Moreover, Egyptians used to appropriate foreign gods and idolatrous practices as their own on a regular basis, and so did ancient Jews. This practice is called “iconotrophy,” and there’s a very good possibility that it happened here.
- Joseph translated 11 figures on this facsimile. None of the names are correct and none of the gods exist in Egyptian religion or any recorded mythology.
- Joseph misidentifies every god in this facsimile.
Facsimile 2 is a curious one. I certainly wouldn’t say that Joseph misidentified every god on it. While it’s true that he doesn’t use the names most Egyptologists are familiar with, the concepts he discusses align very well with the Egyptological and/or Hebrew symbolism behind the figures. There are some startling connections that you’d have to be reaching to dismiss.
As far as Figure 1 goes, the concept of Kolob governing lesser stars comes straight out of Egyptian cosmology, where the idea of encircling something means to control or govern it (such as the sun encircling the Earth, with the sun god, Re, governing all other gods). Since Jeremy is so concerned with names, the name “Kolob” fits right in with ancient Mesopotamian root words which share similar functions to that of Kolob. The Egyptians actually did measure time in cubits. Time being measured differently in different spheres is another concept the Egyptians were familiar with, as well as many other ancient cultures. This idea has been described as “a huge framework of connections [that are] revealed at many levels” and an “echoing manifold where everything responds and everything has a place and a time assigned to it.” In that framework, the unit of measurement is “always some form of time.” The idea of concentric circles being central to the foundation of the universe is not a new one, and it’s exactly what the hypocephalus is meant to represent. It was meant to represent all that the sun encircled, i.e., the Earth, and then, more broadly, the universe as a whole. Regarding Jah-oh-eh being the Earth, Michael Rhodes connects that to the Egyptian word for “O Earth,” ỉ 3ḥ.t, assuming Joseph used a “J” for the Semitic yod. Conversely, Hugh Nibley connects it to the true name of Jehovah, YHWH, or j-a-o-e, and ties that to the ancient concept of the “sacred four” that comes up over and over again across multiple cultures: four winds, four quarters of the Earth, four sons of Horus, four great gods, four cosmic deities, four cardinal directions, four elements, four pillars of heaven, four main stars of the Big Dipper, etc., that symbolize “completeness” or “wholeness.”
In Figure 2, the figure is Amun-Re, the Great God, or the god of all other Gods, the Egyptian equivalent of Zeus. He is holding a scepter that symbolizes his power. Amun-Re represents that encircling power to govern all. He appears to be synonymous with Yahweh/Jehovah/Jesus Christ. The staff and crown adorning the figure show that he is the celestial gatekeeper and the “opener of the way,” showing us the way toward eternal life. Christ echoes this same imagery in John 14:5-6 when He declares that He is the way, the truth, and the life. In this image, he is a step away from Figure 1, which is in the center of the hypocephalus and which represented Kolob, the governing star. Figure 1 also contains the Egyptian god Khnum, seemingly symbolic of God the Father. Hugh Nibley explains that the proximity is the point: Joseph interpreted this image to mean a place that was one step farther removed from the center than Kolob, just as this image of Amun-Re was one step removed from the central figure of Khnum and Jesus Christ is one step removed from God the Father. By laying it out symbolically like this, the hypocephalus is showing that God’s power extends to multiple spheres, even as they’re farther removed from His governing seat. It’s also symbolic of past and future, the resurrection of the sun, and the continuous circle of the Plan of Salvation, i.e., the birth and rebirth of our spirits as we enter differing phases of our spiritual journey, just like baptism, repentance, and the Atonement do for us today. The hypocephalus suggests these concepts in a different, ancient language than the one we speak today.
It’s claimed by some that Figure 3 is backwards; however, with it facing the direction it is, it preserves the entire flow of the hypocephalus as one giant circle. The staff in the figure’s hand is the was-sceptre, which represented power and dominion. Thus, Joseph stating that the figure was “clothed with power” is spot-on. Again, this is one more degree removed from the center, and again, it demonstrates a renewal, progressing from one state to another as the boat makes the round through the netherworld and back to life again, with God overseeing all. Through His divine wisdom and guidance, the “grand key-words of the Priesthood” are revealed.
In Figure 4, the Hebrew word rāqîa’ does in fact mean “expanse” and ancient Hebrews did believe in a “firmament of the heavens” that was supported by pillars similar to the Egyptian belief in the four pillars of heaven. The figure’s outstretched wings also signify the heavens, as well as the stars in those heavens. This, of course, brings to mind Abraham’s progeny being equated with the stars in the sky. Additionally, there is a wealth of information equating the Egyptian god Sokar with the number 1,000.
The cow in Figure 5 represents Hathor, who in turn is a symbol of the sun just like Joseph stated. In what world does someone look at an upside-down cow and say, “That represents the sun” and be correct? And yet, that’s exactly what happened. Hathor is also the “mistress” of other solar deities, and Joseph labels the figure here as the Sun, the “governing power” that presides over 15 other planets. There are illustrations where Hathor is trailed by stars, and the number 15 pops up repeatedly in ancient Egypt in the form of gates or doors, or sometimes as go-betweens to convey light and to aid the soul in its journey from life to death to rebirth. Joseph explains the fifteen planets as a conduit through which God’s power is channeled. And what is God’s power, but the power of the Priesthood, Resurrection, and eternal life?
Additionally, Joseph stating that the four sons of Horus in Figure 6 represented the four quarters of the Earth (an idiom from Joseph’s day for the four cardinal directions) is exactly right. That’s word for word what they represented.
In Figure 7, Joseph stated that the Egyptian god on the throne was representative of God the Father. While modern Egyptologists identify this figure as Min, god of fertility and the harvest, ancient Egyptians actually labeled this figure as “the great god” or “the Lord of All.” Additionally, Min was viewed as the “creator god” because of his association with fertility. There are also times when the Holy Ghost appears in the form of a dove, as we all know. Most notably, this happened at Christ’s baptism, but in Abrahamic apocrypha, it also happens to Abraham.
Joseph says that Figure 8’s explanation can only be found in the holy temple. This is interesting because the script discusses granting life unto the soul of the owner of the papyri, a deceased figure that bears the same name as the Pharaoh that carried implements (and possibly ordinances) from Solomon’s temple to Egypt. What else are temple ordinances for, other than to help us gain eternal life? This note from Joseph was published just two months before the full temple endowment ceremony was instituted in Nauvoo.
Joseph declines to identify the other figures, simply saying that they will be revealed in due time, at the Lord’s discretion. Another surprising connection, however, is that Joseph’s explanation for Figure 11 contains the phrase, “If the world can find out these numbers, so let it be.” This is remarkable because Hugh Nibley discovered mathematical equations encoded into the facsimile.
- Joseph misidentifies the Egyptian god Osiris as Abraham.
- Misidentifies the Egyptian god Isis as the Pharaoh.
- Misidentifies the Egyptian god Maat as the Prince of the Pharaoh.
- Misidentifies the Egyptian god Anubis as a slave.
- Misidentifies the dead Hor as a waiter.
- Joseph misidentifies – twice – a female as a male.
To begin with, the glyphs on figure 1 only bear a passing resemblance to the name of Osiris. That could be because it was a bad engraving, or it could be because it’s not actually Osiris. Because we don’t have the original, we can’t know for certain either way. Regardless, whether it’s Osiris or not, there is ample evidence that Osiris was often associated with and identified as Abraham by both ancient Egyptians and Jews. How could Joseph have possibly known that?
There are issues regarding the reading of Figure 2’s name of Isis as well, and she is also sometimes identified as Hathor. The glyphs look nothing like they should if she were indeed Isis. Regardless, Isis’s name literally means “throne,” and she was sometimes called, “the ruler of Egypt,” among other similar titles. As the living embodiment of the throne of Egypt, her name is synonymous with that of the Pharaoh. There was also a documented instance when Ramses was identified as Hathor. So, stating that Isis/Hathor can’t be a symbol of the Pharaoh to some people seems like another of those instances where Jeremy refuses to bend from his strictly literal assumptions about something, despite evidence suggesting others might disagree.
Maat is sometimes identified as “the female son” of Hathor, signifying that she is a princess. Maat’s relationship to Hathor is the same as the prince’s relationship to the Pharaoh, that of a royal child to a royal parent. She also played a special role in the coronation of the new king, literally aiding the prince of the Pharaoh in rising up to take his place on the throne. So, again, stating that she cannot represent the prince seems overly rigid.
As far as the dark-skinned figure being Anubis goes, once more there are problems with the label over the figure’s head not being accurate to the name “Anubis.” It’s impossible to tell if it was translated correctly or not because, again, we don’t have the original to compare it to and we can’t tell if those are engraving errors or that’s actually what the label said. There’s no evidence that the image was damaged and the head replaced, like there was with Facsimile 1, and Anubis nearly always wears a knee-length kilt called a shendyt, not an ankle-length apron or skirt. When Anubis features in these scenes, he usually leads people by the hand or he stands or kneels beside the throne or scales. He doesn’t follow people with his hands on their waists. If this is Anubis, what he is doing here is completely unique to any other of the hundreds of throne scenes out there. That all suggests that maybe, this figure is not meant to represent Anubis at all…or at least, not just Anubis.
Remember, Egyptians liked their figures to have multiple meanings, which also holds true for the figure of Shulem the waiter/Hor. That figure may well represent both, or it may be that Joseph simply likened this picture to a story he found in the Book of Abraham that we no longer have today. The name “Shulem” is authentic to the time period, and so is his position as a waiter or butler to the king. Considering that the only two time periods in which the name Shulem is attested to in Egypt happen to be during the time of Abraham and the time in which the papyri was created, I’d say that was a pretty big bullseye for Joseph.
And lastly, there is a wealth of evidence showing that genders were regularly confused in these figures during the Ptolemic time period in which the facsimiles were created. Joseph stating that female figures were actually male ones is spot-on for the time period. It’s not the obvious error it might appear to be to someone who hasn’t studied the Greco-Roman period of Egypt…which, as stated, is most Egyptologists.
And that concludes the recap of the facsimiles. It was a massive info/link dump, so congrats for getting through it! We have some extra room here, so I’m going to move on to the next question.
The Book of Abraham teaches an incorrect Newtonian view of the universe. These Newtonian astronomical concepts, mechanics, and models of the universe have since been succeeded and substantially modified by 20th century Einsteinian physics. What we find in Abraham 3 and the official scriptures of the LDS Church regarding science reflects a Newtonian world concept. Just as the Catholic Church’s Ptolemaic cosmology was displaced by the new Copernican and Newtonian world model, however, the nineteenth-century, canonized, Newtonian world view has since been displaced by Einstein’s twentieth-century science.
Jeremy then lists two quotes in support of his assertion:
Keith E. Norman, an LDS scholar, has written that for the LDS Church:
“It is no longer possible to pretend there is no conflict. … Scientific cosmology began its leap forward just when Mormon doctrine was becoming stabilized. The revolution in twentieth-century physics precipitated by Einstein dethroned Newtonian physics as the ultimate explanation of the way the universe words. Relativity theory and quantum mechanics, combined with advances in astronomy, have established a vastly different picture of how the universe began, how it is structured and operates, and the nature of matter and energy. This new scientific cosmology poses a serious challenge to the Mormon version of the universe.”
Grant Palmer, a Mormon historian and CES teacher for 34 years, wrote:
“Many of the astronomical and cosmological ideas found in both Joseph Smith’s environment and in the Book of Abraham have become out of vogue, and some of these Newtonian concepts are scientific relics. The evidence suggests that the Book of Abraham reflects concepts of Joseph Smith’s time and place rather than those of an ancient world.” – An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, p.25
The Book of Abraham does not teach a Newtonian view of the universe. It teaches a geocentric one. This means that the ancient cultures believed that the Earth was the center of the universe and the sun and stars revolved around it instead of the other way around. There are numerous articles written about this concept, demonstrating how and why Jeremy is wrong in his assertion. As we know, Heavenly Father teaches us new concepts according to our own understanding and language. This is what He was doing here with Abraham.
Jeremy appears not to have even read his own cited source, an article published in Sunstone Magazine in 1986. The article was written by a man named Keith Norman (whose expertise is in early Christianity, not science) who admits in the article that, when it comes to theoretical physics, “I am still struggling with books on the subject written for the layman.” Most importantly, the article isn’t even about the Book of Abraham or its cosmology. It argues that Einsteinian physics point toward “creation ex nihilo” as being the truth over the Latter-day Saint view that matter is eternal. Norman only cites the Book of Abraham one time in the entire article, when quoting a line about Kolob while speculating about a possible “solution” to his self-created dilemma:
Precisely because Mormons believe in a plurality of gods, we are logically led to speculate as to their locations or spheres of dominion. The astronomical assertions in the Pearl of Great Price may indicate that God rules within our own galaxy, the Milky Way: “Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest” (Abr. 3:9; cf. facsimile 2, esp. fig. 5). Does each God have his and her own galaxy or cluster of galaxies? The Milky Way galaxy alone has over 100 billion stars, quite enough to accommodate the phrase “worlds without number.” And ours is just average-sized as galaxies go, one of 100 billion. In other words, there are as many galaxies in the universe as there are stars in our galaxy.
The problem is, theoretical physics doesn’t support creation ex nihilo as proposed in this article. Now, physics is not my forte, so if I misstate anything here, I hope someone will correct me. But Stephen Hawking, easily the most brilliant scientific mind of our generation, stated this:
At this time, the Big Bang, all the matter in the universe would have been on top of itself. The density would have been infinite. It would have been what is called a singularity. At a singularity, all the laws of physics would have broken down. This means that the state of the universe after the Big Bang will not depend on anything that may have happened before, because the deterministic laws that govern the universe will break down in the Big Bang. The universe will evolve from the Big Bang, completely independently of what it was like before. Even the amount of matter in the universe can be different to what it was before the Big Bang, as the Law of Conservation of Matter will break down at the Big Bang.
Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory and say that time began at the Big Bang. Events before the Big Bang are simply not defined, because there’s no way one could measure what happened at them.
Dense matter existed before the Big Bang, according to Hawking, and because we can’t observe what happened prior to that event, it’s simply not defined in the theory. The Big Bang Wikipedia page states that, “The model describes how the universe expanded from an initial state of high density and temperature, and…as an event [it] is also colloquially referred to as the ‘birth’ of our universe since it represents the point in history where the universe can be verified to have entered into a regime where the laws of physics as we understand them…work.”
So, the universe existed in an initial state before the Big Bang happened, just like Hawking said. Because scientists can’t measure time and space prior to the Big Bang, some scientists say that it was “nothing,” but they don’t mean that word the way that Norman interprets it. They mean it the way that Hawking interprets it.
This theory Hawking was describing is called the “initial singularity” theory. Other theories have been proposed, like the “M-theory”/multiverse theory or the “loop quantum gravity”/LQG theory. Regardless of which theory you support, however, they all suggest that something existed before the Big Bang and thus, the universe was not created from nothing. It’s just that it was immeasurable and unobservable, so we don’t have the resources yet to fully understand it. It’s hard to define it accurately, so some scientists don’t bother to try.
Norman seems to have misunderstood what those other scientists were saying, and his article is a theoretical one based on that misunderstanding. The Big Bang theory does not support creation ex nihilo as Norman posits, and therefore, science does not disprove Latter-day Saint cosmology.
However, the main point is, none of that has anything to do with the Book of Abraham’s view of the universe. The article does not claim what Jeremy says it does…or what Grant Palmer says it does. Palmer was a former CES employee who lost his testimony, then published an anti-LDS book after he retired. One of his main sources for his assertion that the Book of Abraham teaches a Newtonian view of the universe is this exact article, using this exact same quote that Jeremy does. This tells me that Palmer’s book is likely Jeremy’s true source for this claim, as it did not come from the article itself. The article never makes the claim that the Book of Abraham’s cosmology is Newtonian.
Moreover, ancient cultures, like the Egyptians and the Israelites, also believed that creation came from something already existing, just like Hawking and other modern physicists do. The account of the creation given in the Book of Abraham aligns perfectly with that view, while the belief in creation ex nihilo was highly prominent in the 1800s. Rather than support the trending view in Joseph’s day as claimed, the Book of Abraham actually counters it.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.